Am I Ready to Ski the Backcountry? Transitioning from On Piste to Off Piste Skiing

Daniel DawsonAugust 05, 2019

Off-piste skiing, also known as backcountry skiing (in the United States), broadly refers to all skiing activities that take place outside of demarcated resorts.

While best reserved for advanced on-piste skiers, the sport is rapidly growing in popularity, especially as equipment improves and new technologies allow for easier navigation in remote areas.

Off-piste skiing also serves as a gateway for other great ski-related sports, such as ski touring and ski mountaineering, both of which are also quickly increasing in popularity.

Are you wondering whether you are ready to make the leap from traditional pistes to the backcountry? Keep on reading and find out!

Off-piste skiing vs skiing on-piste

 

Always expect the unexpected while off-piste skiing; no two slopes are alike. Photo courtesy of Michael Horst.

The term “piste” comes from French and refers to a groomed trail on a mountain slope. Ski resorts are generally composed of numerous pistes, which tend to be wide and smooth. These pistes are maintained daily, in order to ensure high-quality powder (occasionally machine-made) is evenly spread.

By contrast, skiing off-piste is more natural and organic. It means heading away from the resorts and skiing on powder that has not been taken care of.

Also known as freeride or powder skiing, going off-piste means you will be skiing in un-patrolled areas with no marked trails. While this is inherently riskier, it is also more liberating, which is probably why off-piste skiing is quickly becoming the largest niche winter sports market anywhere in the world.

Three reasons to go off-piste skiing

 

Everyone heads off-piste for different reasons and there are far more than three reasons to do so, but here is a sampling of why people decide to ditch the resorts for the backcountry.

 

One of the main reasons to head off-piste is for spectacular views. You won’t find views like this at a resort. Photo courtesy of Juho Lukkari.

1. For the stunning scenery

 

Heading off-piste takes you to more uninhibited and wild areas, invariably meaning the scenery will be nicer. Some of the best views available anywhere in the world come from the slopes of an isolated and snow-capped mountain on a set of skis.

2. To escape crowded resorts

 

Tens of millions of people head out to the ski resort slopes each winter in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, it is unusual to enjoy a run all to yourself or not wait in line at the chair lift. Getting out of the resort and heading off-piste allows you to escape the crowd and enjoy pristine, untouched powder on empty mountain slopes.

3. For the challenge

 

Once you’ve mastered the black diamond slopes, it may feel like there is nowhere else to go. Don’t lull yourself into a sense of complacency! Taking up off-piste skiing presents myriad new challenges that will put the sense of adventure back into the sport and give you that feeling you had the first time you went downhill on a pair of skis.

Tips for heading off-piste

 

Never head out into the backcountry alone. Preferably, you should hire a local and certified mountain guide, who will know the terrain and the best spots. Photo courtesy of Florian Kraler.

As great as off-piste skiing sounds, the sport is definitely not for everyone. While there are plenty of different criteria for who may be ready to head off-piste, UCPA, the Union of Outdoor Sports Centers, sums it all up quite well:

“You should be a very competent advanced-level piste skier. You can ski all pistes including blacks confidently. However, during very tricky conditions, such as low visibility or ice, you may find black runs more challenging.”

The reason for this high level of proficiency is that off-piste skiing is technically much harder than on-piste skiing. Different skills and techniques are required when you head off-piste. You essentially have to do a bit of relearning how to ski.

For example, turning is different. When heading off-piste, you will need to put weight on both skis as opposed to just the outside ski. This will prevent you from sinking into deep snow that has not been packed down.

Snow textures also tend to change quickly and without warning. For instance, you may go from gliding on soft-powder to sinking into wet and sludgy snowdrifts in a matter of seconds. To avoid sinking and stay on your skis, you will need to change your movements.

In general, the off-piste terrain is quite uneven. Having experience skiing over moguls – bending your knees and keeping your balance as you turn in order to absorb the shock of going over the bump – is helpful for what you will find on ungroomed slopes in wilder areas.

For reasons such as these, it is imperative to hire a certified mountain guide. These guides usually have years of experience skiing in the area, so they know the best spots to go and also how to stay safe.

Avalanches and rockfalls are ever-present dangers in many mountainous regions. IFMGA-certified guides (or a local equivalent) will check snow and weather conditions with you prior to heading out. Based on this information and their experience, your guide will be able to pick the best route.

Hiring a certified guide is without a doubt the best way to enjoy your time out in the backcountry and stay out of harm’s way.

Finally, off-piste skiing is quite a workout. Before booking your first trip, make sure you are in good physical condition and can ski as well as walk for eight consecutive hours without needing much of a breather.

Trips for beginners

 

Wherever you are, there are usually plenty of incredible and scenic options for your first off-piste adventure. Photo courtesy of Paul Pellecuer.

Keeping all of this in mind, off-piste skiing is a whole lot of fun. There’s certainly a reason why it is the fastest-growing niche winter sports market out there.

Below, we’ve listed a few trips that are perfect for people just getting into the sport.

1. 1-day avalanche training course in Austria’s Kitzbuhel Alps Safety first, but no one said that couldn’t entail some gorgeous views. Situated in central Austria, this pristine Alpine subrange is the perfect spot to learn basic avalanche safety, a must-do for all serious aspiring off-piste skiers.

2. 3-day avalanche training course in Slovakia’s High Tatras – At first glance, the High Tatras seem an unorthodox location for avalanche training. However, their remote nature and prominent peaks epitomize the necessity for being prepared. With no one around to help, you’ve got to know what to do in case of an avalanche.

3. 2-day off-piste initiation in Chamonix Sitting in the shadow of Mont Blanc on the French-Italian border, Chamonix is a world-class off-piste skiing destination and combines everything that makes this sport so great. It’s certainly among the best places to try it out for the first time.

4. 1+ day off-piste skiing with a freeriding expert in Hokkaido – Japan’s northern Hokkaido island gets some of the best snow conditions on earth. It’s a great place to get off-piste experience and learn all the necessary skills to keep progressing in the sport.

5. 1-day intro to backcountry skiing in British Columbia – Well north of Vancouver, Whistler is blessed with incredible scenery, superb powder, and its remote location. For those looking for the perfect off-piste learning environment, it certainly fits the bill.

 

Once you’ve gotten a taste for off-piste skiing, your newfound appetite for the sport will become insatiable. Photo courtesy of Ryuta Asahi.

 

Interested in finding out more? Keep reading about off-piste skiing to see what gear you need, when is the best time to go and find even more great off-piste locales!

And if you are ready to go, pick an off-piste skiing trip with one of the certified guides listed at Explore-Share!

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